20 Iconic Movie Scenes We Had No Clue Were Made On Miniature Sets

20 Iconic Movie Scenes We Had No Clue Were Made On Miniature Sets

Perspective is everything, and that applies to movies, too. While you might’ve thought you watched footage of hauntingly beautiful castles and mountains, or even the exquisite work of CGI artists, it’s not uncommon that spectacular scenes are actually miniature sets. The magic of Hollywood is surreal, and we’re here to show you the most impressive miniature movie sets of all time.

1. Harry Potter

Even though there are eight Harry Potter films, there’s just one enormous miniature (what an oxymoron) of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The model of the magical school, which spans 50 feet across, was inspired by both Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle. The Hogwarts model is so intricate that it has hinged doors and little replica owls settled in the owlery. Say hi to Hedwig!

Harry Potter Studio Tour London / YouTube

2. King Kong

Though there are several King Kong films — 10 American versions and two Japanese versions, to be exact — it’s the original 1933 King Kong that went down in history for its revolutionary effects, which included a number of miniatures. Not only were there miniature New York City skyscrapers, but special effects designer Willis O’Brien also made numerous puppets of the giant gorilla himself. Scenes involving Kong terrorizing Manhattan were then filmed in stop-motion.

Mary Evans / RKO RADIO PICTURES / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

3. Alien

Ridley Scott’s 1979 anxiety-inducing space nightmare Alien has been praised for its hyper-realistic practical effects (we all remember the chest-burster scene). But aside from alien Xenomorph XX121, the space tug itself, the Nostromo was really a remarkable miniature designed by artist and “frustrated engineer” Ron Cobb. Brian Johnson and the visual effects team built the ship to be eleven-by-seven feet and over 500 pounds!

20th Century Fox

4. Titanic

I’ll never let go, Jack. James Cameron and Dream Quest Images used several “miniature” models in 1997’s romantic drama Titanic, including a 1/8-scale replica of the notorious ship’s stern coming out of the black water. The biggest miniature of the entirety of the Titanic ship was built at 1/20 scale and a whopping 45 feet in length!

20th Century Studios

5. Goldeneye

For Martin Campbell’s 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye, miniature effects supervisor Derek Meddings sprinkled flour and cat littler over the the miniature satellite bunker set, making the terrain look as realistic and gritty as possible. Why have an entire cast and crew go to Siberia when you can simply make it?

Eon Productions

6. Inception

According to production designer Guy Dyas, just five percent of the scenes in Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggling Inception used green screens. CGI appeared sparingly, as the film heavily relied on practical effects. For the explosion of the mountaintop hospital, the effects crew created a 1/6 scale model of the facility… only to blow it up! The 40-foot high miniature model was destroyed in 5.5 seconds, all for movie magic.

Warner Bros.

7. Ghostbusters

You know that scene in Ghostbusters showcasing the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man blundering through the streets of Manhattan? It’s oddly cute, but also terrifying. Though some parts were accomplished via strategic editing, wide shots were done with a miniature set of city streets and Central Park. The incredible model included remote-controlled cars and busted fire hydrants that spewed sand, which was meant to look like water when shot from afar.

Columbia Pictures

8. Escape From New York

Filmmakers can’t just film wherever they want whenever they want, and John Carpenter is no different. For his 1981 action film Escape From New York, he and his crew weren’t allowed to film in NYC. The film was shot in St. Louis, but for scenes depicting Snake Plissken hang-gliding into Manhattan, a miniature replica of the south side of the city did the trick.

Embassy Pictures

9. Poltergeist

Back in 1982, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist proved to be a fantastic mishmash of every practical effect you can think of, as CGI couldn’t exactly be used as a crutch. The film’s Cuesta Verde house — spoiler, it was built on an Indian burial ground — eventually gets sucked into another dimension. This was done with a six-foot-long miniature of the house, which was pulled down a funnel with metal wires.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

10. Lord of the Rings Franchise

The world of Middle-earth is no stranger to CGI, but plenty of the architecture present in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations were really “Bigatures,” as deemed by New Zealand workshop Weta. Its team of artisans created numerous structures for the films, including the castle of Minas Tirith, which scaled 23-feet high! Each intricate Bigature took approximately 1,000 hours to complete.

New Line Cinema

11. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Since filmmakers George Miller and George Ogilvie and their team couldn’t actually destroy Sydney, Australia, for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, they had to create a miniature rough-and-tumble version of the city. Visual effects artist Dennis Nicholson and his team built the model, which featured a dilapidated Opera House and a withered harbor. It’s too bad the gorgeous model was demolished after filming!

Via National Film and Sound Archive

12. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Though the mine cart chase scene in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom exudes edge-of-your-seat suspense, most of it was filmed with miniatures! Industrial Light & Magic’s artisans used aluminum foil and brown paint to create the claustrophobic cave walls, and they even made tiny carts full of miniature dolls portraying each actor. It created one heck of an illusion.

Lucasfilm

13. Batman

In 1989, Tim Burton and designer Anton Furst made Gotham City a dark and gloomy city brimming with danger at every corner. To create the fictional urban jungle, the crew made giant matte paintings and loads of miniatures. For certain scenes, such as when Batman’s Batmobile drives right through the gates of the Joker’s factory, it’s almost impossible to spot what’s real and what’s a meticulous miniature!

Warner Bros.

14. Independence Day

“The first film was produced at the brink of the digital revolution — 95 percent was shot using miniatures with motion-control cameras and combined digitally in postproduction,” said Oscar winner Volker Engel, the VFX supervisor for both Independence Day films. “The destruction of the White House was the toughest effect — and it became the signature shot,” he recalled. A 15-feet wide and five-feet high miniature was created by attaching a plaster shell to a metal body.

20th Century Fox

15. Back to the Future: Part III

The iconic Back to the Future trilogy is jam packed with ’80s magic, including lots of denim and the world’s most famous DeLorean car. While a real DeLorean was used throughout the trilogy, a train chase scene in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future: Part III wouldn’t have been possible without the creation of a miniature train, its tracks, and a tiny DeLorean!

Universal Pictures

16. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s quirky, yellow world continues to enthrall audiences, though his world is a lot smaller than you may have realized. Considering the director loathes phoniness, he’s not a CGI guy. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes hired a Potsdam studio to bring his and production designer Adam Stockhousen’s idea to life. The miniature hotel was 14-feet long and included dozens of architectural styles.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

17. The Impossible

Many movies that depict epic disasters utilize miniatures, as it’s not exactly practical (or legal) to go around blowing up real-life buildings. To recreate the devastating tsunami that engulfed a Thai resort for The Impossible, Magicon GmbH made several 1/3-scale bungalows, trees, and a pool, which were destroyed by a million liters of water. By doing so, the crew created a 1.5-meter-high wave! They later touched up some footage with CGI.

Via FX Guide

18. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Surprises even creep up on seasoned filmmakers like Steven Spielberg. “Every special effects movie has something in it that teaches you something you probably wouldn’t want to do again,” he said. “After 1941 I said, ‘No more miniatures and no more multiple storylines.’ And I wound up smack dab in the middle of it again with Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That’s right! A miniature model of the Rub’ al Khali can be seen.

Lucasfilm

19. The Dark Knight

There’s no question why Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was nominated for multiple Oscars. The director isn’t a fan of CGI-mania, so his 2008 action masterpiece was choc-full of practical visual effects. During the film’s underground chase scene, Batman, driving The Tumbler, crashes into a garbage truck and spins uncontrollably down the tunnel. Rather than using real vehicles, New Deal Studios created 1/3-scale models of the car, truck, and tunnel!

Warner Bros.

20. Blade Runner

Noted director, special effects supervisor, and inventor Douglas Trumbull can be thanked for the futuristic flying cars, AKA Spinners, in 1982’s Blade Runner. The sci-fi fever dream featured many life-size models, but the zoomed-in shots of cars were mostly 44-inch-long miniatures! Though these films clung to practical effects over CGI, the magic in computer-generated scenes is nothing is scoff at.

Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

21. Guardians of the Galaxy

Take 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy for example. Fantastical characters filled the 2014 action flick when all was edited and digitized, but on set, a tall guy with a literal Groot helmet on played the Flora colossus. And Rocket Raccoon? Just a crouching, angry-looking Sean Gunn.

22. Jurassic World: Guardians

This film wasn’t Chris Pratt’s only foray into the world of CGI. In the 2015 follow-up to the beloved Jurassic Park franchise, Owen—played by Chris Pratt—quite literally had his back to the wall as velociraptors surrounded him in a tense, terrifying scene. But before digital effects?

Unscary Reality

Before special effects brought the raptors to life, Pratt faced-off with the on-set equivalent of three poodles in a trench coat: four guys slightly crouched in raptor helmets. It doesn’t exactly scream tense and terrifying.

23. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

As Hermione walked with Harry through the Hogwarts library in the sixth film of the eight-film franchise, her returned books floated back into place magically. On set…?

Green Screen Tricks

Director David Yates didn’t rely on a well-placed Wingardium Leviosa spell to place those books back on the shelves; instead, the muggles on set donned green gloves and grabbed the books out of her hands. No magic here.

24. District 9

With just a $30 million budget, director and CGI-guru Neill Blomkamp delivered beautiful digital effects in the sci-fi flick by utilizing bright lights and keeping the alien prawns relatively simple (by CGI standards).

25. Superman Returns

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a guy in a Superman costume suspended from wires in a green room with people lying beneath him and gusting him with portable fans!” (That line didn’t make it into the movie).

26. The Desolation of Smaug

When there weren’t any Screen Actors Guild-registered dragons available to play Smaug in the sequel to The Hobbit, director Peter Jackson required some digital effects to get the job done. On set, it looked a bit goofy.

Move Like The Lizards Do

See, Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t just lend his voice to Smaug. He studied lizards at a London Zoo so that he could accurately represent how a dragon might move, too! Motion capture cameras allowed him to play Smaug.

27. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis is the leading motion capture performer in Hollywood, and he showed why with his award-nominated performance as Caesar in Rise. So, this photo features a man pretending to be an ape sitting on a horse.

28. Lord of the Rings

Serkis is most well known for his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, however. For some reason, a man in a skin-tight, bright blue suit is about as creepy as a shell of a man corrupted by an evil artifact.

29. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Davy Jones terrified viewers as captain of The Flying Dutchman, but as the film’s Animation Director, Hal Hickel said, “we don’t want audience members to think about this…Davy’s 100 percent computer generated.”

Spooky Suits

While cameras were rolling, TheFlying Dutchman’s crew proved they understood fashion in a way the barnacle-covered pirates in the digitized, completed version of the film didn’t. The grey CGI suits were spooky.

30. The Avengers

In the 2012 blockbuster, The Hulk revealed a secret to Captain America: he’s always angry. In his motion-capture suit, Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo was angry, too. “I was…miserable,” he said. “A trained actor reduced to the state of a Chinese checkerboard.”

31. The Avengers

Ruffalo didn’t get any reprieve from his frustration during fight scenes, either, though his Chinese checkerboard did get upgraded—or downgraded?—with the addition of an incredibly green bulk.

32. The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Because petting an actual wolf might’ve cost actress Kristen Stewart her hand, director Christ Weitz had her gently stroke Taylor Lautner’s head, instead.

33. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Digital-effects guru Pablo Helman said the film’s director wanted “people to look at the characters and say, ‘How do they do this? Is this is a real character, is this makeup?'” None of the above. Just four guys with big backpacks.

34. Alice in Wonderland

When Alice strolled through the fauna of Wonderland in the 2010 remake of a classic, she passed brilliant mushrooms with lumbering, fat baby giants at her side. It didn’t look like that when cameras were rolling, though.

Putting On The Big Suits

Turns out, Alice was just about the only real part of Wonderland. Producers and directors utilized people in CGI suits—and other CGI’d props like nerf balls—to ensure that actress Mia Wasikowska’s interactions with her surroundings felt authentic.

35. Beauty and the Beast

Before digital effects, The Beast, played by Dan Stevens, looked like a little kid in a superhero Halloween costume with stitched-in muscles while wearing his CGI suit. Still, that suit required some muscle to wear—it weighed 40 pounds!

36. Deadpool

Five actors played Colossus: one on set, one in the studio, a face model, a dialogue performer, and then a final facial performance actor. Did the on-set actor know he wasn’t just playing a giant in grey pajamas?

37. The Life of Pi

To put 17-year-old actor Suraj Sharma on a 20-foot lifeboat with a live tiger would’ve been dangerous at best and a bloodbath at worst, so the 2012’s films creators resorted to some less threatening digital effects.

But What About The Doll?

While a real tiger played the part in certain scenes, a haphazardly sewn together stuffed doll with Sharpie eyes brilliantly performed the up-close-and-personal moments. The doll was not nominated for an Oscar, a true travesty.